In July, Café Art gave 100 disposable cameras to homeless people in London and the stunning results went viral. I met Paul Ryan, one of the founding directors of Café Art, in a café that serves as his temporary office to find out a little more about the project. It turns out that Café Art and Eye Want Change have quite a bit in common when it comes to using art as a medium for social change. By enabling homeless people to engage with art and photography, Café Art helps give them back the skills and confidence they need to make the next step. Through showcasing this work in cafés, calendars and exhibitions, Café Art has raised money for the homeless as well as shedding light on this ever-prevalent issue. I wanted to find out why the project was so successful and what art can do to help those in need.
C.S: In your own words, what is Café Art?
Paul: Café Art is an organisation, which connects people affected by homelessness with the wider community through art. We have this annual photography contest where we hand out 100 cameras at St Paul’s Cathedral. People have three days to take photographs of London. The theme is ‘My London’, it’s very broad and the idea is to engage people who have been homeless, some of them have been rehoused, some are still sleeping rough. If people have been rehoused, homeless just doesn't end like that. They still might not have a job and London can be a very lonely place. You still need to connect with people so it’s a way of getting people out there and giving them some experience and some skills. Later on the participants have an opportunity to sell the calendar, gaining work experience in a market and raising money to buy art materials. We work with art groups and all the way along the line we’re trying to get people engaged as well as raise a bit of money as well.
C.S: Can art and photography challenge stereotypes surrounding issues such as homelessness?
Paul: Well, I hope so. The idea is not to rub it in peoples face, the idea is to be subtle, and hopefully people will get to know the photographer by reading their story. And also the people selling the calendar [the photographers can sell the calendars themselves] will meet the public, it’s all about connecting communities and hopefully from that, there will be greater understanding. That’s the idea behind it.
C.S: Do you think people resonate more with photographs than with art?
Paul: Art is our main focus during the year as we hang paintings in cafes and it's very popular, so you can’t really distinguish between the two. I think photography is easier to sell in a calendar than art. The process of training people to take photos and handing out the cameras gives us an opportunity to generate publicity. I think there is something about photography that really resonates with people. And if you have a really good cover photo, the calendar sells really well. If it’s cute or makes people laugh. This year we had both. It was a dog, and he made people laugh because he was smiling and it was that cover image that really made people click. However, the paintings are still very popular in cafes and we have hundreds of artists on our books who have paintings all over London. They connect with the buyers when they are sold - another one of our ways of connecting people. We actually did our first calendar with paintings and we would not rule out doing another one one day!
C.S: Is there something in being able to recognise an image that makes people relate to photography, in a way that they might not with art?
Paul: Well, you know, the photography had some negative comments. I decided to read The Daily Mail, because they had an article about the calendar, and one person said-“These could have been taken by anybody” and I actually replied and said-“You're right, they could be taken by anybody, the idea is to show that just because somebody is homeless, doesn’t mean they’re not just like anyone else. They could be you.” Through the photography we’re trying to say that these photos could be taken by anybody and just because a homeless person took them, they don’t have to document they’re lives [as homeless people]. Some projects I’ve seen in the United States give out disposable cameras and people are asked to take photos of how they live, and that’s fine, but it’s a different project. Our one is about having fun with a camera, taking photos of the London that you love. You might see views that you might not normally see but then again, you might see parts of London that you’ve been to before and there are some photos that are very, very popular images of the London that people love. That’s what ‘My London’, is supposed to do. We named it ‘My London’, because we felt that even though we could have chosen something that wasn’t so London centric, most of our sales would be to Londoners initially and now the amazing thing is with this Kickstarter, ‘My London’ is going all over the world, and it doesn’t really matter.
C.S: Have you found that some people have changed their opinion about homelessness after seeing these photographs?
Paul: Over time, people who have bought the calendar have changed their opinion about the issue and that’s one of the goals. It’s not the primary goal, it’s the secondary goal, the primary goal is to empower the people participating, and that is our mission. To make sure that the people who are participating are not being exploited and they’re getting something from it.
C.S: Will the cuts to the arts and potential growth in homelessness mean that art will have to fight for its place as a medium for social change?
Paul: We’re trying to make it self-sustaining by creating a calendar and putting the money back into buying art materials. We’ve donated back £10,000 back to the art groups and we don’t just give the money to the charities, we buy art material vouchers and give it to the art groups so they can buy the materials. We’re trying to make it separate from the other funding, so that it isn’t affected by any cuts. People say instead of buying cameras you should just buy food and give it to people, the way we see it is that a lot of people have lost confidence. Food is one thing but giving people skills is another and this helps people get photography skills, it helps give them social skills and then hopefully they’ll use those skills to be able to get a job or to move ahead. We don’t see it as being wasteful, its like therapy.
C.S: So, what are your plans for the future?
Paul: São Paulo (Brazil) council have asked Café Art to do a photo contest in Brazil. It’s going to be a pilot to see how we can do something in a country like Brazil. And that’ll be a good test for doing the project internationally. The project is being run by One Voice, an organisation which runs arts projects during the London Olympics, and once more FujiFilm will be providing the cameras.
If you’d like to know more about what Café Art do, you can visit their website here. You can also check out the photographs at Spitalfield’s market from Monday the 12th of October or buy the calendar online.
Words by Christa on behalf of Eye Want Change